Conservation & Science

Marine protected areas: building climate change resilience

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations are gathering in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the many ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today, we shine a spotlight on one of the ocean’s most powerful tools to weather the impacts of climate change.

The climate talks in Paris aren’t just about trying to prevent future catastrophe. They’re also about preparing for, and mitigating, the changes already underway.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary_NOAA
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an MPA off the California Coast. Greg McCall/ONMS

The goal at COP21 is to reach an international accord that will substantially cut the world’s carbon emissions, limiting global average temperatures to a 2-degree Celsius rise. But even if we achieve this best-case scenario, climate change will still have serious impacts on the ocean, including higher sea levels, warmer waters, shifting species distributions and ocean acidification.


Strategically creating marine protected areas, or MPAs, can help the ocean (and humanity) withstand these changes.

As more countries protect more of their waters, marine protected areas have grown to cover about 1.6 percent of the global ocean. This is still a long way from the international goal of protecting 10 percent by 2020, but it’s an encouraging improvement from less than 1 percent just last year.

Dry Tortugas Park Florida_NOAA
Tortugas Ecological Reserve in Florida. Flickr Creative Commons/NOAA

California leads the way, with a scientifically designed network of more than 100 MPAs along the state’s coastline. We’re already seeing how MPAs have boosted the recovery of once-depleted West Coast groundfish and other commercially important fish species, but recent research suggests they do even more. They’re proving to be powerful tools in protecting coastal ecosystems from the impacts of climate change, including oxygen-depleted water (hypoxia) and ocean acidification.

The burning of fossil fuels releases previously “locked-up” carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs about one-third of that excess carbon dioxide, setting off a chemical reaction that lowers the pH of ocean water. California’s waters are now 26 percent more acidic than they were 100 years ago. That makes it harder for species like oysters, corals and pteropods to make their shells. Plankton, which is the base of the food web, is affected too.

But research by our partner organization, the Center for Ocean Solutions, suggests MPAs can serve as “sentinel sites” for monitoring and protecting important species and habitats, making them more resilient in the face of climate-related impacts like ocean acidification.

Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary_NOAA
Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa. Flickr Creative Commons/NOAA

An impressive delegation of California lawmakers and officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, are attending the climate talks — highlighting the state’s role as a global leader in climate policies.

California Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird says the state’s MPA network will help scientists measure, monitor and respond to the impacts of ocean acidification on different ecological communities. Check back here tomorrow for a special COP21 message from Secretary Laird.


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